Interactive Marketing Gives You the Power ... to Design Sad Little Facebook Ads

A new campaign from Dove promises the opportunity to rid your Facebook of "feel-bad ads" but it doesn't deliver.

alexis tab.jpg
Photo by Ricky Montalvo, design by Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg

Every day the average American is bombarded with thousands of advertisements. These messages, ranging from the barely perceptible to the very intrusive, subtly shape our tastes, our ideas, and, of course, our spending habits. That, of course, is the idea.*

These messages are pushed at us, and we subsume them into our world view. In this process we have varying degrees of control over the messages we see. We can fast-forward the commercials on our DVRs and we can install ad-blockers on our browsers, but any way you cut it, we're taking in countless images and slogans from ad campaigns every single day. What if that were to change? What if we had more control over what the advertisements we see look like?

That power is the premise of a new advertising campaign from Dove, on offer now to Facebook users in Australia and Brazil. Perhaps of all the different industries that shape society with their ads, none is as reviled as the beauty industry for its promotion of an unrealistic physical ideal for both men and women. Dove, which has a history of ad campaigns featuring women of many shapes and sizes, explains, "In fact, Dove discovered that only four percent of women believe that they're beautiful. ... We decided to do something about it. Dove created the Ad Makeover, a Facebook application that lets you replace those feel-bad ads with messages designed to make women feel good instead." The video below ostensibly demonstrates how this works.

Unfortunately the app isn't all the video makes it out to be. You can't actually replace the "feel-bad ads." What the app allows you to do is design a Dove ad for Facebook, and then Dove will, through ad-buys, rotate those ads in to the existing stream of ads that women on Facebook see. The "power" the app offers is thin, just the choice of colors, targeting, and messaging for a corporate ad-buy.

Still, despite the disappointing reality of the app, the idea it animates exposes a tension at the heart of an age we are tentatively entering: the age of the interactive ad. Just last week BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti spoke glowingly about the potential for social, interactive ads. "With younger consumers, it's, 'I want want advertising that I want to share or click, to engage with instead of advertising that forces me to watch it before I get what I want,'" he said. Nick Denton of Gawker expressed a similar instinct, "I'm actually much more interested in what I would call conversational marketing. That is the advertising that I would buy. The ability to have a conversation with -- not necessarily with end customers, but people online who are truly going to influence end customers. And this is probably not the social media elite." Meaning, we want to help companies find their ways into the conversations people are having with their friends, because that is where the real opportunities are for shaping what people like and what they buy. (One note -- advertising can be social but not interactive. That was part of the problem with Facebook's short-lived Beacon system, which broadcast users' purchases to their friends without their approval.)

Dove's campaign is a useful case study for thinking about the positive and negative aspects of this sort of marketing. On the one hand, I'm weary of doing the work of marketers for them, ferrying their messages to my friends and family, signed, sealed, and delivered with my personal mark of approval. I know we all convey to those around us all the time the products we like, the services we use. But creating and sending online advertisements is so explicitly the work of marketing, it seems a bridge too far. On the other hand, I like the idea of investing more power in consumers over which messages we all receive. Although I am not a parent, I can see how such control would be particularly appealing if I were. Tipping some of the power in this equation back toward consumers seems like fundamentally a good thing, though the difficulty lies in assessing whether that power is real or illusory.

And good luck in sussing out that one. In the end, the story of the age of the interactive ad will be one of that tension, about how we, as consumers, will control marketing -- and how much it will control us.

*If you are curious to read about just how deeply a marketing campaign can affect a culture, this 1982 Atlantic cover story, "Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" cannot be recommended enough.